Michigan gets $6M in federal funds to combat COVID-19 variants

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
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Washington — The White House said Michigan will get $6 million in federal funding in early May as part of an effort to help detect and track variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 by boosting up genomic sequencing efforts.

The money, allocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is part of $1.7 billion from the COVID-19 relief package that Congress approved this year that is intended to help states combat mutations of the virus that now cause more than half of all infections in the country. 

Health care officials attribute Michigan's surge in infections in recent weeks in part to COVID variants, including B.1.1.7, a United Kingdom variant for which Michigan has the second-highest number of cases in the nation. 

The image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. "The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots," says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state is leading the nation in its rate of new infections. At least eight hospitals across Michigan were listed Thursday at full capacity for COVID patients, and the state's largest hospital system, Beaumont, indicated it's nearing its capacity. 

Federal officials say they are aiming to increase genomic sequencing of the virus, which is how scientists decode its DNA and detect the more contagious and potentially deadly mutations.

The information from that process can help state and local public health leaders can implement "known prevention measures," according to the White House.

Michigan has a state laboratory that does the genomic sequencing to confirm variant cases and sequences about 500 samples a week, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said earlier this year. The department's Bureau of Laboratories has been performing whole genome sequencing for SARS-CoV-2 since March 2020, she said.

“All samples that are sequenced have been monitored for any variants of interest that we may see within the state,” Sutfin said. “As of mid-December when we became aware of the B1.1.7 variant, we have been screening samples as they come off the sequencer prior to any further analyses."

Michigan's state lab has been doing less genomic sequencing as more was done at clinical or commercial labs," she said.

Michigan looks forward to improving the state's sequencing program "that is among the best in the nation as a tool in combating COVID-19," state health department spokesman Bob Wheaten said late Friday. The state is awaiting further details from the federal government on how the money may be used, Wheaton said.

“At this critical juncture in the pandemic, these new resources will help ensure states and the CDC have the support they need to fight back against dangerous variants and slow the spread of the virus,” White House COVID-19 testing coordinator Carole Johnson said in a statement. 

U.S. laboratories are sequencing about 29,000 samples of COVID strains a week, up from about 8,000 strains per week in early February, officials said. That increase followed nearly $200 million that the Biden administration put into the effort.

"We started in a hole. Despite having world-class researchers and dedicated state and local public health leaders, when we arrived, the U.S. was sequencing only a small fragment of what other countries were," White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said at a Friday briefing. 

"This hampered our ability to find and react to these new variants. What we call surveillance — our ability to spot variants as they emerge and spread — is vital. Particularly if we aim to get ahead of dangerous variants before they emerge, as they are in the Midwest right now."

Michigan is set to receive $6,386,578 as part of the first tranche of funding released, which is intended to support the work of state laboratories with the collection of COVID specimens, the sequencing of COVID viruses and the sharing of the resulting data, the White House said.

A second tranche of funding will be invested in the coming years. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Karen Bouffard contributed.

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